Genesis 18.1-15 & 21.1-7
Pentecost Season, Proper 6
Plymouth UCC, Fort Collins
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
The stories of Genesis are rich and mythic. Ancient when they were first committed to writing around the 6th century BCE during the crisis of the Hebrew people’s exile to Babylon. How do you keep your sacred traditions when you are separated from your homeland? You begin to write them down. Your three pastors are embarking on a preaching series of the stories of Genesis for the next three to 4 weeks. Today we jump right into the midst of the oldest patriarch and matriarch stories, those of Abraham and Sarah. Years before our story, in chapter 12 of Genesis, Abram is called by the One God “to go to a land that I will show you. And there I will bless you and make of your descendants a great nation. We will be in covenant.” The couple has been journeying with this God leading them for many years with this promise of abundant fertility hanging over their heads. Yet the first thing we learn about Sarah in this long story is that she is barren. Just before our story, in chapter 17 of Genesis, God has given the promise again along with new names, Abraham and Sarah. They are really old now and when God reiterates that Sarah will have a son, and soon, Abraham literally falls on his face laughing. He has a son by a second wife, Hagar. Why, asks Abraham, won’t God consider this son, Ishmael? God says that son will be blessed, but the divine covenant will be with the son of Sarah. And with that final word from God, Abraham goes to complete his part of the covenant that God is requiring, the ritual of circumcising all the men and boys of his household. Then our story begins.
Genesis 18.1-15 1
The Holy ONE appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. 2 He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. 3 He said, "My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. 4 Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. 5 Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on — since you have come to your servant." So they said, "Do as you have said." 6 And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, "Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes." 7 Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. 8 Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
9 They said to him, "Where is your wife Sarah?" And he said, "There, in the tent." 10 Then one said, "I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son." And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. 11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, "After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?" 13 The Holy ONE said to Abraham, "Why did Sarah laugh, and say, 'Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?' 14 Is anything too wonderful for the GOD? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son." 15 But Sarah denied, saying, "I did not laugh"; for she was afraid. God said, "Oh yes, you did laugh."
Genesis 21.1-7 1
The Holy ONE dealt with Sarah as was said, and the Holy ONE did for Sarah as was promised. 2 Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. 3 Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. 4 And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. 5 Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. 6 Now Sarah said, "God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me." 7 And she said, "Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age."
Years ago I gave a friend a card to cheer him up; if truth be told, to give him a bit of a kick in the pants. He was one of those folks who approach life with a furrowed brow and a bit of melancholy. Intense, deep feeling. The card said, “Life’s too mysterious. Don’t take it serious!” I don’t remember the picture on the card but with it I gave him one of those toys that is a figure put together on a string with moving limbs. You hold the string coming out of the top of the head and pull the string that is comes down between the legs and then the figure’s arms and legs move up and down as if its dancing. This figure was a vegetable man….he was completely clothed in all kinds of vegetables. Not a serious figure! A laughing one! I wanted my friend to laugh…to know that the deep seriousness of the world was such a deep mystery that in always pondering it with the deep intention of figuring it all out, we sometimes missed the deep joy that was also present in the mystery.
Life’s too mysterious! Don’t take it serious! Can we take this advice in considering the mysterious story we just heard from the book of Genesis, the Book of Beginnings? The mysteries of our own lives, of the world we live in now?
The three visitors in our story are, at first, a mystery. Appearing out of the shimmering desert heat to bring a mysterious message. They remind us of the invocation of the author of the book of Hebrews in the New Testament. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Was the writer of Hebrews invoking this story from Genesis? Perhaps. The ancient tradition of Middle Eastern culture is to always show extravagant hospitality in the desert. There it can be a matter of life and death. Does Abraham know upon first glance that these visitors are messengers from the Almighty? That they are actually the Almighty?
We soon learn that their visit is really for the woman behind the tent flap, the wife, Sarah. Whom we never see. We only hear her laugh and her voice. This is Sarah’s first personal encounter with the God her husband has been following all these years. Sarah has been the wife along for the ride. In earlier stories, she is portrayed not only as barren, but also as beautiful. We discover she is very canny. More than once she gets her husband out of a jam, including the times she is willing to be a sexual pawn with a more powerful tribal leader to protect her husband and her family.
The beautiful, but barren, Sarah also takes action after years of God’s promise to make of Abraham’s heirs a great nation. She gives Abraham her maid, Hagar, as a second-tier wife, in keeping with the cultural custom of the time. Hagar gives him a son and heir. Ishmael is born. But you heard how God dealt with that. Ishmael is not the son of promise.
Now God is dealing directly with Sarah. After all these many, many years of infertility she laughs in the face of seemingly miraculous news! If she has always lived under the stigma of being barren, why isn’t she laughing for Joy! Miraculous news! But is it wanted news? I don’t hear joy – yet – in Sarah’s laughter. I hear scoffing – “ A son? Yeah right!” I hear an incredulous laugh – “Oh, now you’re coming through with the promised son after I have suffered all these years!” I hear a laugh that hides rage and tears – “I have come to terms with my barren state! I put that grief behind me. I provided Abraham a son with the Hagar. Do I get any respect here? I should risk having a child in my advanced years….I should risk my life and the child’s? I should risk disappointment again if the pregnancy fails? Do I have a say in anything? Am I just a pawn in this relationship of my husband to his god? A tool used when convenient?” “This really is preposterous!” Sarah laughs and I imagine tears of anger and frustration and grief come down her face.
Laughing into the seriousness of mystery, into the face of God, is not a lark. It is a way to deal when life deals us unexpected hands in its game. Currently the mystery of two pandemics are staring us in the face – Covid-19 and Covid 1619 as one of our African-American UCC clergy colleagues named the long pandemic of racism in America. 1619 being the year that African slaves were first brought to the Jamestown colony in what is now Virginia. We are scrambling to face the mystery of both these pandemics. Mysteries that overwhelm our hearts, our minds and our ability to know what right actions to take. And laughter is probably not the first thing that may come to us as we look their crises simultaneously in the face – unless we laugh with Sarah, in incredulous, scoffing grief and angry frustration. Like Sarah we cannot change what is happening. It feels so tragically surreal.
We do not know, understand, why we are suddenly and mysteriously facing these two crises in our world. Both are born of deep pain and the loss of sacred lives. They are serious. With a pregnancy in old age foretold by a personal announcement from this mysterious God, Sarah had much to think about. It seems she chose to listen to herself, to this God, as the new life stirred within her amidst all the fears and physical discomfort of pregnancy. Would the baby really be born alive and well? It takes faith to be pregnant.
Like Sarah we are invited to “listen” through the pregnant pain of these two pandemics: to the hurt of those who are still dying from Covid-19, the hurt of their families, for those out of work, for businesses closing. We listen to the hurt caused by the disproportionate number of our brothers and sisters of color who have died in this pandemic. We listen to the ache in our bones for the pandemic of deaths caused by racial violence also staring us in the face. This has been a much longer season of pandemic that we have tried to ignore, or smooth over, without going to the root causes of greed and abuse of power. It’s time to defeat this racial pandemic, to heal its deep wounds. And there are actions to take.
But first we listen. To the history of centuries of our brothers’ and sisters’ pain. We listen to follow their lead in the birth of a new life of racial equality and economic balance that will bring justice for all. Just as a woman listens to her pregnant body’s promptings in labor and delivery, to the promptings of the new life within her. We listen and we pray without ceasing as we listen. Every pregnant woman knows the depth of deeply longing prayer for the new life within. And we trust in faith the Holy One’s words…”Is anything too wonderful for God?” Is anything too wonderful for God?
This is the serious mystery we are invited to co-create with, to laugh into, to wrestle and rejoice with…Life is too mysterious not to take serious in its pain and its joy. Too mysterious not to listen to before we jump to fix its pain. Sarah did not laugh with great joy till she held the newborn Yitsak, Isaac, in her arms. His name means “he who laughs.” She gave thanks and rejoiced, “Who knew I would nurse a child in my old age?” Is anything too wonderful for God? May we listen in the struggle of this mysterious pandemic time, may we find the moments of joy in the pain, may we take God’s promise seriously in the mystery of faith. Amen.
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2020 and beyond. Please do not reprint with out permission.
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.
Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
I want to share some background with you about our story for today from the Book of Acts, chapter 17. The Acts of the Apostles tells of the movement and expansion of the good news of Jesus the Christ as well as the actions of the earliest followers of Jesus and their gatherings or churches after they receive the great anointing of the Holy Spirit during Jewish festival of Pentecost. Acts tells the story of the preaching and evangelism of the apostle, Peter, who knew Jesus so well and of the apostle, Paul, who never knew the man, Jesus. Paul received God’s good news of Jesus in a miraculous vision of the risen Christ as he was literally pursuing the persecution of Jesus’ Jewish followers after Pentecost.
Our story today centers on Paul. Paul was born in Tarsus, now in modern day Turkey. He was a Jew from his mother’s heritage and a Roman citizen from his father’s. As such he was educated not only in the Torah but also in Greek/Roman rhetoric. All of these elements go into the complex character of Paul whom we can learn so much from in theological dialogue, sometimes in theological conflict, as we read his letters to the earliest churches. In Acts the stories of Paul are told through the lens of the gospel writer of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles and was very likely writing some 20 or more years after the death of Paul. Not necessarily concerned with writing fact-checked details of Paul’s life, this writer wants to picture Paul’s audacity and passion in sharing his new faith in the revelation of God in the risen Christ.
At the beginning of chapter 17 in Acts, we find Paul traveling throughout Asia Minor from city to city with his companions, the older, Silas and the younger man, Timothy. They are fervently spreading the redeeming and powerful news of Jesus to Jews and any Gentiles who might listen as well throughout the region. We have to admire their tenacity as time and again they are thrown out of the synagogues by fellow Jews offended by their claims of Jesus as the Messiah. Their lives are threatened. They are beaten and jailed by the Romans for being subversive in preaching that the God of Jesus the Risen Christ is Lord rather than Caesar. Having been thrown out of the town of Thessalonica by the Jews, they are followed to the town of Beroea by these same irate men who are want to expel them from the whole region. Believers in Beroea find and shelter the three. They hide Silas and Timothy and secretly escort Paul to Athens in order to save their lives.
Our story begins in the middle of chapter 17. Paul is waiting for his missionary companions to join him in Athens. It ends with his sermon to the intellectual elite of Athens at a place of council and debate known as the Aereopagus or “Ares’ Hill” for the Greek god of war. During the Roman Empire it became known as Mars Hill for the Roman god. This was a hill outside the city center with a stone amphitheater. For centuries, even before the democracy of Greece was formed, the educated went to this hill to debate philosophy and make legal decisions. These men were often advisors of the king. Though Athens was part of the Roman empire in Paul’s time, Mars Hill and its council still functioned as a seat of authority in the city.
You will hear that Paul’s intent as he preaches to the intellectual elites is to open their minds to a new image of God, the ONE God revealed in Jesus the Christ. The information in his sermon may seem quite familiar to you. It is the salvation story of the Bible. To challenge what may be our overly familiar images of God, I have changed some of the pronouns that Paul uses for God from “he” to “she”. Hearing an unfamiliar pronoun takes our images out of their familiar God boxes that are culturally constructed to even speak of the God mystery. Now we know that the Holy cannot be contained in an intellectual box so perhaps, hearing new pronouns, the ears of our minds and hearts will open to bring us a new encounter with the Holy ONE. Perhaps we will hear the words of Paul with some shock and awe as the Athenians did so long ago and begin to seek God anew. Acts 17. 16-32
16While Paul waited for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to find that the city was flooded with idols. 17He began to interact with the Jews and Gentile God-worshippers in the synagogue. He also addressed whoever happened to be in the marketplace each day. 18Certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers engaged him in discussion too. Some said, "What an amateur! What's he trying to say?" Others remarked, "He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods." (They said this because he was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) 19They took him into custody and brought him to the council on Mars Hill [The intellectuals on Mars Hill said to Paul,] "What is this new teaching? Can we learn what you are talking about? 20You've told us some strange things and we want to know what they mean." (21They said this because all Athenians as well as the foreigners who live in Athens used to spend their time doing nothing but talking about or listening to the newest thing.)
22Paul stood up in the middle of the council on Mars Hill and said, "People of Athens, I see that you are very religious in every way. 23As I was walking through town and carefully observing your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: 'To an unknown God.' What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you. 24God, who made the world and everything in it, is Lord of heaven and earth. He doesn't live in temples made with human hands. 25Nor is God served by human hands, as though [She] needed something, since [She] is the one who gives life, breath, and everything else. 26From one person God created every human nation to live on the whole earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their lands. 27God made the nations so they would seek [God], perhaps perhaps even reach out to [God/Him] and find [God/Her.] In fact, God isn't far away from any of us. 28In God we live, move, and exist, [have our being.] As some of your own poets said, 'We are [God’s] offspring.' 29"Therefore, as God's offspring, we have no need to imagine that the divine being is like a gold, silver, or stone image made by human skill and thought. 30God overlooks ignorance of these things in times past, but now directs everyone everywhere to change their hearts and lives. 31This is because God has set a day when [God/She] intends to judge the world justly by a man [God/He] has appointed. God has given proof of this to everyone by raising [this man] from the dead."
32When they heard about the resurrection from the dead, some began to ridicule Paul. However, others said, "We'll hear from you about this again."33At that, Paul left the council. 34Some people joined him and came to believe, including Dionysius, a member of the council on Mars Hill, a woman named Damaris, and several others. [Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Location 42947). Common English Bible. Kindle Edition.] For the word of God in scripture, for the word of God among us, for the word of God within us…. Thanks be to God.
“An unknown god”…. Mirabai Starr, world religions scholar, author, and translator of St. John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul and Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle, writes of “an unknown god” in a 2014 Huffington Post Article:
“I have always been drawn to a God who eluded me. A God who transcends gender — transcends everything, actually. A God who rebels against all forms, annihilates conceptual constructs, blows my mind. In other words, a God I can’t believe in. Because beliefs are dangerous — dangerous to God, anyway. The minute we define Ultimate Reality we destroy it. God chokes and dies inside the boxes we make.”
Starr goes on in this article to write of the God she seeks to be in relationship with rather than intellectually construct. I think this was Paul’s intent as he introduces the unknown god to the Athenians as the God he knew as creator and redeemer of the world, the very Ground of Being. In Paul’s Jewish heritage, the God who names God’s self as “I AM” or “I Will Be Who I Will Be.” Paul begins with images of God from natural theology, as creator the cosmos and all of its beauty, then moves to an ever-present, seemingly beneficent God who is the parent of humankind. These would have been familiar images to the Athenians as he indicates. Finally, he brings in the shock and awe, announcing the God who has the unbelievable power to conquer death, to resurrect a man from the dead. No wonder some to the Athenians laughed at, ridiculed Paul, in one translation called him “babbler.” And yet others said, “We want to hear about this again!” And some believed and followed this God of Jesus the Christ on the way of faith.
This God that Paul preached to the Athenians rebuking their notions that God can be kept and worshiped in human-made idols – who is this God for us today? Is this a God that will turn us from the idols of our times? What are the idols that flood the cities of our lives? They are probably as numerous as the idols of the Athenians, though we may not make them out of gold or silver or stone. We may make them out of achievement in work, or in wealth, or in athletic endeavor, or in intellectual pursuits, or in following the best health practices. We can even make an idol of following religious practices in order to earn God’s notice. Are our works of social justice ever in danger of becoming idols? Our political views and actions? Our need to be right? Whatever we set before seeking, reaching out to God can become an idol. Trying not to have idols could become an idol.
Do you catch my drift here? God is the undefinable container in which all of the universe, all that we know, has its being. Each of us lives and moves and has our being in God, whether we acknowledge this or not. “Bidden or unbidden God is present with us.” This wisdom saying is usually attributed to Carl Jung, yet he found it in the ancient Latin writings of a Desiderius Erasmus who attributed it to an even older Spartan (Greek) proverb. Paul proclaims this unknown, yet ever-present God as not just a beneficent creator, but a fierce lover of humankind, so fierce that God defeated death itself in the risen Christ. Paul proclaims that this God, “I AM,” who raised the man, Jesus, from the dead, was Lord of all, not Caesar or the empire. This unknown God is not an inanimate idol made by human hands or human will, but a living presence.
Who is the God that we proclaim? Who is the ONE that we seek before any of the idols in our lives? Is it the God of relationship, ever-present, fiercely loving, and always seeking us, revealed in Jesus the Christ? Our biblical and theological heritage speaks of this God as “he”. Yet we know that God is neither male nor female, God is ALL, God is ONE. God answers to Father, to Mother, to Beloved, to Holy Mystery, to Gracious Bearer of Light, to Challenger of Our Lives, to Comforter of Our Souls’.
During our time, as we live and move and have our being in this God in the midst of pandemic, in the midst of intense political strife, in the midst of extreme economic uncertainty and divisive polarized rhetoric of our day, may we put aside the idols that tempt us when we are fearful, that distract us in our grief. May we turn our hearts, our ears, our minds, our full attention to the ONE who is ever-present, who grieves with us, who rejoices in our presence and in our joys. The ONE who has conquered the power of death and brings us gifts of grace, mercy, hope and forgiveness as we seek to be in relationship with one another and with God. May we take the time during these tumultuous times to still ourselves that we may know again and again the “unknown” living God in whom we live and move and have our being.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2020 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.
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